January 11, 2011

2004: Eagles Convert 4th-and-26, Force Overtime, and Beat Packers

The NFC Divisional playoff game on January 11, 2004 was the first to be played at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field as the host Eagles, NFC East champions in 2003 with a 12-4 record, took on the 10-6 Green Bay Packers, who had finished atop the NFC North.

The Eagles, under fifth-year Head Coach Andy Reid (a former Green Bay assistant), had won the division title and made it to the conference title game in each of the previous two seasons, but had struggled early in ’03. They were badly beaten in their first two contests and had a 2-3 record before reeling off nine straight wins. QB Donovan McNabb (pictured below right) suffered from a bruised thumb to start the year and was ineffective through the first six games, but came on strong in the second half along with the rest of the club. The three-headed running attack of Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook (who would be out for the playoffs due to an arm injury suffered in the season finale), and Correll Buckhalter was effective, combining for 1618 yards rushing and 83 pass receptions, although the wide receivers were average, at best. Defensively, star FS Brian Dawkins had missed nine games with a foot injury, but was healthy for the playoffs, while DT Corey Simon and CB Troy Vincent turned in Pro Bowl seasons.

Green Bay was coached for the fourth year by Mike Sherman and, as had been the case since 1992, featured 34-year-old QB Brett Favre, who passed for 3361 yards and a league-leading 32 touchdowns, but also 21 interceptions. WR Donald Driver and Pro Bowl TE Bubba Franks led the receiving corps, while RB Ahman Green ran for an NFC-leading 1883 yards.

It was a cold night in the teens with 67,707 fans in attendance at the new stadium. Neither club was able to generate much offense initially, with the Eagles failing to get a first down on any of their first three possessions. The Packers got a break when McNabb fumbled and LB Nick Barnett recovered. On the next play, Favre threw to WR Robert Ferguson for a 40-yard touchdown.

Eagles WR James Thrash returned the ensuing kickoff 36 yards and McNabb took off on a 41-yard run down to the Green Bay 15 on Philadelphia’s first play. However, the drive stalled and David Akers missed on a 33-yard field goal attempt. The Packers responded with an eight-play, 86-yard drive that included a 26-yard run by Green. Favre again hit Ferguson with a scoring pass, this time of 17 yards, and Green Bay had a 14-0 lead after one quarter of play.

The teams traded punts as the game moved into the second quarter. McNabb hit on five passes in a six-play drive that covered 77 yards and included a 45-yard completion to WR Todd Pinkston that in turn set up a seven-yard TD pass to Staley.

Green Bay came back with a drive deep into Eagles territory, but after getting a first-and-goal at the four yard line, the defense held and, when Green was stopped for no gain on a fourth down play at the one, Philadelphia regained possession. The first half ended with the Packers leading by 14-7.

Both offenses bogged down again in the third quarter, but as the period was winding down the Eagles, starting at their 11 yard line, began to drive. McNabb was successful on passes of 23 yards to TE L.J. Smith, 10 yards to Pinkston, and 15 to Staley. The fifth-year quarterback had started the drive with a 13-yard carry and he ran again, for 24 yards down to the Green Bay 36, as the period came to an end. On the first play of the fourth quarter, McNabb, barely scrambling out of trouble, threw to Pinkston for a 12-yard touchdown and, with the successful PAT by Akers, the game was tied at 14-14.

The teams traded punts before Favre completed a pass to WR Javon Walker for a 44-yard gain to the Philadelphia seven. The Packers had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell, but had regained the lead at 17-14. The Eagles punted again following their next possession, and Green Bay put together a drive that burned over six minutes off the clock. But with fourth-and-one at the Philadelphia 41, Coach Sherman elected to punt rather than risk another failure to convert a fourth down.

Following Josh Bidwell’s kick, the Eagles got the ball on their own 20 with 2:21 remaining in regulation. Staley took off on a 22-yard run, but then McNabb threw an incomplete pass, was sacked for a 16-yard loss, and tossed another incompletion. With the ball on the Philadelphia 26 and facing a fourth-and-26 situation, it appeared that the Eagles’ season was practically over. However, McNabb completed a pass to WR Freddie Mitchell, in the midst of two defenders, for a 28-yard gain and an improbable first down (pictured at top).

The Eagles continued their drive to the Green Bay 19, and with five seconds remaining Akers booted a 37-yard field goal to tie the contest at 17-17 and send it into overtime.

Philadelphia received the kickoff in the sudden death period and went three-and-out. But Favre threw a long, high pass that was intercepted by Dawkins and returned 35 yards to the Green Bay 34. Six plays later, Akers kicked a 31-yard field goal and the Eagles came away with a 20-17 win.

For the most part, the team statistics reflected the closeness of the outcome. The Packers had the most yards (381 to 363) while Philadelphia had the edge in first downs (19 to 16). Both teams turned the ball over once. But the Packers sacked McNabb eight times, while the Eagles got to Favre only once.

Despite the punishing pass rush, Donovan McNabb completed 21 of 39 passes for 248 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and also ran for 107 yards on 11 carries, a NFL playoff-record rushing performance for a quarterback. Todd Pinkston caught 7 passes for 95 yards and a TD. Duce Staley led the running backs with 45 yards on five attempts and also caught three passes for 26 yards and a score.

Brett Favre was successful on 15 of 28 passes for 180 yards and two TDs against the one big interception. Ahman Green (pictured at left) ran for 156 yards on 25 carries, although the yard he failed to get on the fourth down play at the goal line in the second quarter had a profound effect on the outcome. Robert Ferguson led Green Bay’s receivers with 4 catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns.

“I tried to beat my man across from me and just go deep, and I went deep,” Mitchell said of the fourth-and-26 pass play. “I didn't see the guy on top of me but Donovan read that and threw a back shoulder to me and I saw it in the air and I made a play.”

“That shouldn't have happened,” Green Bay DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila said. “But it did.”

The dramatic win didn’t translate into success the following week for the Eagles, however, as they lost their third consecutive NFC Championship game, this time to the Carolina Panthers.

For Freddie Mitchell, the big catch against the Packers was the highlight of an otherwise-disappointing career in Philadelphia. The Eagles’ first round draft pick in 2001 out of UCLA, he ended up with a total of 90 receptions for 1263 yards and five touchdowns, and was released following the 2004 season, effectively ending his NFL career. But for one play, he reached the heights that had been expected of him.